David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.
The Week That Was
Long Beach Takes Down Another Ranked Opponent: Long Beach State continued its strong nonconference play at the Diamond Head Classic, beating then-#14 Xavier as well as Auburn to reach the tournament championship game against Kansas State, where it fell to the Wildcats. At the beginning of the season, the 49ers knocking off two ranked opponents would have been seen as a gigantic accomplishment, but now the two wins look somewhat less impressive given Pittsburgh’s and Xavier’s struggles. Xavier was missing starters Mark Lyons and Dezmine Wells, and would fall to a very mediocre Hawaii team the following day. Nonetheless, still a very good showing in Honolulu for the 49ers.
Santa Barbara Goes Cold: Long Beach State’s consensus biggest Big West threat at the beginning of the season sputtered to an ugly finish in the nonconference portion of their schedule, getting walloped by both Cal and Brigham Young on the road. UCSB went into overtime against both San Diego State and UNLV earlier this season, but seemed to shrink on the road. Beyond the Gauchos big three of Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally, and Jaime Serna, the UCSB bench has been uninspiring. New Mexico transfer point guard Nate Garth has also struggled recently, being relegated to the bench against BYU where he committed four turnovers in just 10 minutes. Colorado transfer Keegan Hornbuckle has also been a non-factor.
Big West Action is Here: In recent years, the Big West has been one of the most closely fought, anyone-can-win-on-a-given-night conferences. Even though Long Beach State went 14-2 last year en route to the regular season title, they lost to eight-seed UC Irvine in the regular season and lost to No. 5-seed UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament. Although there figures to be more of a divide in the contending teams and the rebuilding teams this year, extremely hard-fought close battles are still to be expected. How teams match-up with each other, coaching strategy, home court advantage and coming up with clutch shots late will determine a number of games. Already, streaking Cal State Fullerton had to squeak out a win against cellar dweller UC Davis, who has yet to claim a win against a Division I opponent this year. These are coaches and players who know each other very well, bringing a whole new element to games with an increase in intensity a likely by-product.
Long Beach State: The Best Six-Loss Team In The Nation. (Stephen Dachman)
Long Beach State (7-6) – Despite coming up short against Kansas State in the Diamond Head Classic championship game, Long Beach State still had a tournament they could be proud of, beating No. 14 Xavier by 10 and Auburn by 21. In addition to notching wins over Atlantic-10 and SEC teams, Long Beach State also gained more national exposure with a couple games on ESPN2 and the Xavier win on ESPNU. All positive things for a program that is trying to take it to the next level. Senior Larry Anderson was named to the all-tournament team for scoring in double figures all three games, while freshman point guard Mike Caffey emerged as an exciting player for not only the future but for this season as well. The 6’0” Riverside, California native poured in 14 points against Xavier, exciting fans with his energetic yet composed play. Read the rest of this entry »
David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.
The Week That Was:
Thomason Sets Big West Win Record: Pacific coach Bob Thomason won his 406th game with the Tigers on December 3, surpassing former Long Beach State and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian as the all-time winningest coach in the history of the Big West Conference. Pacific defeated Utah State 65-57 in the landmark win, the Tigers’ third of the year. Thomason is in his 23rd year as Pacific coach, and has perhaps his most difficult task before him this season with a team of newcomers and very little returning experience. So far, the Tigers are 3-3, but their win against the Aggies is their only win against a Division I opponent.
San Diego State Hangs On: Amidst rumors of San Diego State potentially joining the Big West in non-football sports due to its likely move to the Big East in football, the Aztecs went to overtime against Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara before beating both in a possible foreshadowing of match-ups to come. The 49ers, coming off their upset of #9 Pittsburgh, led by three at halftime and then battled back to force overtime before succumbing to the Aztecs 77-73. A similar storyline unfolded in Santa Barbara, when the Gauchos built up a lead at halftime before losing it and then forcing overtime with a late free throw. San Diego State came through in overtime once again however, defeating UCSB 76-75.
Growing Pains: The Big West is quickly sorting out into a top four and bottom five infrastructure, with the bottom five struggling mightily against some underwhelming opponents. Besides Pacific’s aforementioned one D-I victory, UC Irvine is 1-6 after going 0-3 in the Great Alaska Shootout including a loss to D-II Alaska-Anchorage by 14. UC Riverside is 2-4 with only one D-I win as well, albeit a decent win in the 76 Classic against Washington State. Worse off are Cal State Northridge and UC Davis, who together are a combined 2-13 with zero D-I wins on the year.
Orlando Johnson Is Carrying A Heavy Load For The Gauchos, Playing 70% Of His Team's Available Minutes And Taking 34.9% Of The Shots.
Long Beach State (4-3) – The Big West darlings have yet to follow up on their triumph against Pitt, instead losing to Montana and #6 Louisville. While losing to the Cardinals is understandable, decent but unspectacular teams such as Montana have to be wins for Long Beach State if they want to make this season not merely good, but great. Interior defense has slipped as of recent, and turnovers and free throw percentage need improvement as well. A lot of that comes down to maintaining a high intensity throughout each and every game, regardless of whether it is in Pittsburgh or Missoula.
UC Santa Barbara (4-2) – After a 4-0 start, UCSB has suffered two gut-wrenching losses to two very tough opponents in SDSU and UNLV. The SDSU game slipped away in overtime partly due to a timeout call when the team had none left, while the UNLV game went into a thrilling double overtime before the Rebels, fresh off their triumph over then #1 North Carolina, pulled out a 94-88 win. Any perceived gap between Long Beach State and UCSB has narrowed over the last two weeks, and it will be interesting to see if Orlando Johnson keeps up his torrid play. As a team, the Gauchos are at the top or near the top of every major statistical category. Read the rest of this entry »
Location: Northridge, CA Conference: Big West, automatic Coach: Bobby Braswell, 205-180 08-09 Record: 17-13, 11-5 Last 12 Games: 9-3 Best Win: 71-66, Pacific, 3/15 Worst Loss: 67-65, Cal State Bakersfield, 11/21 Off. Efficiency Rating: 102.2; #162 Def. Efficiency Rating: 97.1; #83
Nuts n Bolts
Star Player(s): Rodrigue Mels, 25.5 ppg in Big West Tournament
Unsung Hero: Tremaine Townsend – 10.2 ppg, 8.3 rebs
Potential NBA Draft Pick(s): None
Key Injuries: Josh Jenkins, G – car accident; Deon Tresvant, G – pending legal case Depth: 41.4%, #9 Achilles Heel: Just 67.3% from the FT line Will Make a Deep Run if…: Memphis falls asleep on the court Will Make an Early Exit if…: They turn the ball over too much (17.7 pg)
Distance to First Round Site: 1,637 miles
School’s Claim to Fame: One of the state’s largest schools (33,000+ students), Northridge finished rebuilding in 2007 after the campus was heavily damaged in the 1994 earthquake that struck the Los Angeles area
School Wishes It Could Forget: Three players (including leading scorer and coach’s son) accused of stealing thousands of dollars in merchandise from a local Best Buy on New Year’s Day this year, and have not played since.
Prediction: Northridge does all of the things that Memphis does… only Memphis does them much, much better. The Matadors won the Big West despite missing some key players, but that grit won’t get them far against the Tigers.
Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports is the RTC correspondent for the Big West and SEC Conferences.
The Big West Tournament will kick off tonight at the Anaheim Convention Center, and anyone who claims they know who will be crowned on Saturday is either: (1) lying, or (2) not familiar with the way the season has gone thus far. The fact is that any Big West team is capable of beating any other team, and seeding means little in making your predictions.
Top seed Cal State Northridge won the regular season title outright, but have faced injuries, legal issues and general inconsistencies that made the race a little closer than most expected when the Matadors were chosen as preseason favorites. Long Beach State, the #2 seed, started out on a blazing 5-0 conference start but has alternated between wins and losses for the remaining eleven games. Third-seeded Pacific hasn’t won a road game since January 31, and even lost to lowly Cal Poly early in the season.
Ryan ZumMallen of LBSports.com is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.
Let’s be very honest about the Big West for a minute: The conference will only send one team to the NCAA Tournament that will probably be seeded 13th or 14th in their region, and there isn’t a single can’t-miss NBA prospect in the conference.
Here’s why you should watch the Big West, anyway.
1. It’s Been A Great Race
Long Beach State jumped out to an early 5-0 conference record behind the fresh legs of their four freshmen, but were hit with an injury to leading scorer Donovan Morris and have stumbled ever since, going just 2-4 in their last six. The most recent loss, a double-overtime thriller at UC Riverside, put the ball in Cal State Northridge’s court. The Matadors, picked in October by both media and coaches to win the conference title, beat that same Riverside team to snatch a full-game lead on Long Beach State. But beware as five teams trail Northridge by 2.5 games or less.
1) Cal State Northridge 12-10 (8-3)
2) Long Beach State 12-11 (7-4)
3) Pacific 14-9 (7-5)
4) Cal State Fullerton 13-12 (7-6)
5) UC Riverside 14-10 (6-6)
6) UC Davis 11-14 (6-6)
7) UC Irvine 8-17 (5-7)
8) UC Santa Barbara 10-13 (4-7)
9) Cal Poly SLO 6-16 (3-9)
Ryan ZumMallen, LBPOSTSports columnist, is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Cal St. Northridge
UC Santa Barbara
Long Beach State
Cal St. Fullerton
What You Need To Know (WYN2K). I know what you’re thinking: no good teams ever come out of the Big West. Oh yeah? What about 2006-07’s Long Beach State 49ers who ran roughshod over their schedule to a 24-8 record and an NCAA berth… losing to Tennessee by 35. Or last year’s three-way tie for first? UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton each won 12 conference games and two earned postseason berths… one bowing out in the NCAA opener and one in the NIT.
Ok, there hasn’t been much success outside of the conference lately – and last year produced some colossal stinkers – but that doesn’t mean that intense basketball isn’t being played within the Big West’s confines. After a conference flooded with seniors last season, nearly every team is starting anew, making for one of the most wide-open conferences in the country. All you need is one stud to will your team to victory, and if 2007 Fullerton product and recent Sacramento Kings signee Bobby Brown is any indication, it is definitely possible for raw talent to be developed in the Big West. Don’t expect the top teams to feast on the bottom-feeders again – all it takes is one hot hand for any team to have a shot on any night. So let’s get into it!
Bottom Feeders.UC Riverside, Cal Poly SLO and Cal State Fullerton. I mention them now because I shan’t be mentioning them again. All three lost a vast majority of their scoring to graduation, and senior leadership is vital in the Big West. Expect painful rebuilding from these three, although Fullerton’s Josh Akognon (video footage below) will win a few games for the Titans all by himself. The 5’11 guard averaged 20 ppg last year and won Big West Tournament MVP honors, but with only 2 returners and Akognon the only returning starter, it’ll be a long year in the cellar for CSF.
Middle of the Pack.
One team that you can (surprisingly) expect to emerge from that very cellar this year is UC Davis. Yes, the UC Davis that went 2-14 in the Big West last season. Stop laughing. Last year’s Aggies fielded zero seniors and this year’s edition has five. They return a trio of senior starters that scored 28.4% of the team’s points, boast two key transfers in Joe Harden and Todd Lowenthal and look to Big West Freshman of the Year Mark Payne to step us as a sophomore. With all of that, I’ve still got them pegged in 6th because, c’mon, it’s UC Davis.
UC Irvine gets the nod for 5th in the Big West, even after losing their top two scorers who brought in a combined 29.5ppg. They do return their other three starters, though, and while the team is not particularly heavy on seniors or explosive guardplay, last year’s squad won 9 of 12 down the stretch so these guys know how to win. Adding three recruits sized 6’8” or taller does not hurt, either. But the Anteaters could well fall prey to the experience of UC Davis, and certainly neither is worthy of a Top 4 spot.
The Pacific Tigers come in 4th, based yet again almost entirely on the genius of the Big West Conference’s greatest basketball mind, head coach Bob Thomason. Thomason consistently squeezes more productivity out of less talent than any other BW coach, and I’ve learned the hard way not to bet against the Tigers. They don’t have the talent to dominate this year, but the high-flying Anthony Brown enters his senior season, and I am intrigued to see what magic Thomason has worked with the 6’9” forward who wowed us with his potential and now will have to show us what’s been done with it. What wins games in the Big West? Guards. Anyone who gives senior sharpshooter Chad Troyer more than an inch of room deserves to be cut and sent to UC Riverside.
As we saw last season, the cream of the Big West crop can be extremely competitive. So these next three teams could end up in any of the top spots, or even in a three-way tie for first like the Trio of ’08. They’re clearly the most talent-laden squads and have the best shot at the hardware. At the rear of the triumvirate is – pains me to say it – Long Beach State. Disclosure: I’m a graduate, and last season’s 6-25 campaign was one of my life’s more painful experiences. But we relied heavily on first-year coach Dan Monson’s genius and junior guard Donovan Morris’ magic. This year, we’ll again need plenty of both, but have added more ammunition than a Howitzer tank to back them up. The 6’3” Morris is the only returning All-Big West honoree in the conference, led the Big West in scoring and is the likely preseason Player of the Year. But the 49ers also add three transfers and a four-member freshman class that is oozing with raw talent in one-guard Casper Ware and freakish swingman Larry Anderson. The experience and talent are there after recording barren levels of both last year. My pick is 3rd place and possibly higher – it’s just tough to get past the oddness of picking a 6-win team to win the conference, even if it’s my own.
Here then, we arrive at #2. This team could definitely end the season in a lower position than this, and probably doesn’t have much chance at the top spot due to a lack of real scoring power or explosive guards. But a notoriously stingy defense and hard-nosed hustle, coupled with eight returners (including three starters) earns the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos the second spot. Well-rounded forward Chris Devine begins collecting Social Security this year enters his sixth season with UCSB after being granted another year of eligibility due to injuries. His leadership will be invaluable as the Gauchos look to recapture the magic after being one of the three teams tied for the conference title in ’08. They’ll rely heavily on a suffocating half-court defense that allows few second chances, and will look for junior James Powell on the perimeter after shooting 46.7% from three-point land and averaging 12.3 ppg last season. Experience and guard-play win out, and the Gauchos legendary grit put them in a class above (most of) the rest.
Experience experience experience. The Cal State Northridge Matadors (#16 NCAA) field five seniors and eight juniors on their roster, including last year’s conference leaders in rebounds, assists and blocked shots. They too shared the Big West title and have a great shot to repeat with Tremaine Townsend returning to terrorize Big West post players for yet another season. Townsend led the conference in rebounds with 9.8 rpg, and blocked shots with 1.3 bpg. The Matadors led the conference in team rebounding, and senior guard Josh Jenkins will look to improve upon his conference leading 6.4apg as well. CSUN head coach Bobby Braswell has never won an outright Big West title in 13 years at the helm, but this is his best chance ever to break the streak.
California @ Pacific (11/15/08)
Long Beach St. @ Wisconsin (11/16/08)
Cal St Northridge @ Stanford (11/18/08)
UNC @ UCSB (11/21/08)
Wake Forest v. Cal St Fullerton (11/27/08)
Cal St Northridge @ UCLA (12/7/08)
Long Beach St. @ Syracuse (12/13/08)
65 Team Era. Due to UNLV’s former association with the conference in the late 80s and early 90s, the Big West has a solid overall record for the era (28-30, .483). But if you take out the Rebels, you’re left with a true mid-major level performance (7-24, .226) with only three wins in the last sixteen years. Pacific’s nice run in the 2003-05 seasons accounts for two of those; the other belongs to another former member of the conference, Utah St. in 2001.
Final Thought. Just for fun, let’s throw in the final seconds of Cal St Fullerton’s Big West championship game…